The poet of my generation who meant most to me, in his person and in his art, was Theodore Roethke. To say, in fact, “poet of my generation” is to name him, Immediately after Eliot and Pound and Hart Crane and Stevens and William Carlos Williams, to mention only a handful, it was difficult to be taken seriously as a new American poet; for the title to “the new poetry” was in the possession of a dynasty of extraordinary gifts and powers, not the least of which was its capacity for literary survival. When Roethke was a schoolboy in Michigan in the twenties, these poets born late in the nineteenth century had already “arrived.” Today, in the general view, they are still the rebels and inventors beyond whom even a college course in contemporary literature scarcely dares to venture.
Roethke took his own work seriously indeed, as he had every reason to do. Lashed by his competitive and compulsive temper, he committed himself fully to the exhausting struggle for recognition—a desperately intimate struggle that left its mark on him. Only a few years ago he could refer to himself sardonically as “the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A.” America wants to wither its artists with neglect or kill them with success. When recognition came, it came in full measure, except for the seductive blessing of a mass-audience, Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking; in 1959, after the publication of Words for the Wind, his collected verse, he received eight awards in all, including some prizes, grants, and honors that nobody had even heard of before. The flattery that meant most of all came in the form of imitation by dozens of even “younger” poets, including some with gray hair. Ted would occasionally make a fuss about these pretenders who were “stealing (his) stuff,” but one did not take the complaints at face value.
More than twenty-five years have passed since he blew into my life like the “big wind” of one of his poems. I was living in the Delaware Valley then. He came, unannounced, down-river from Lafayette College, where he was instructor in English and—more satisfying to his pride—tennis coach. My recollection is of a traditionally battered jalopy from which a perfectly tremendous raccoon coat emerged, with my first book of poems tucked under its left paw. The introductory mumble that followed could be construed as a compliment. Then he stood, embarassed and inarticulate, in my doorway, waiting to gauge the extent of my hospitality. The image that never left me was of a blond, smooth, shambling giant, irrevocably Teutonic, with a cold pudding of a face, somehow contradicted by the sullen downturn of the mouth and the pale furious eyes. He had come to talk about poetry, and we did talk vehemently all through the night. There were times, in the years that followed, when I could swear that I hadn’t been to bed since.
All those evenings …